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Huber Woods, Navesink. New Jersey’s a dish, isn’t it?

Every year on Thanksgiving I make my family’s recipe for stuffing, eat it in great quantities, then go hiking. (The unfathomably good recipe is here.) This tradition does not vary, because like diamonds and a little black dress, like Valentino and the smoulder, it works. It ain’t broke.

But. I had to alter the tradition a bit this year, as I’m still nursing the effects of last month’s scratched food pipe. The stuffing starts with a loaf of crusty Italian bread. When it’s done, it’s spicy, rich, and chewy—the kind of addiction you wouldn’t mind having. And I don’t.

How it ought to look.

I was disheartened for a good week beforehand because I thought I would have to forgo this dish. But I decided to buck up, and good techie that I am, made a plan: to eat stuffing, somehow, and not have it aggravate my condition.

Instead of buying my Italian bread on Monday and letting it go stale on my dining room table until Thursday, I bought it fresh, the day before. Next I pulled the crust from the fluffy white insides—the part I was hoping I could swallow easily—and froze the two portions separately. I also prepped some homemade chicken broth.

On Thanksgiving morning I defrosted the bag of bread insides and added it to my pan with the sausage, spices, olive oil, eggs, toasted nuts, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I ground the dried rosemary with a mortar and pestle so it wouldn’t be too spiky going down. Then I poured broth over the whole thing to make it even more tender.

I am not going to lie and tell you that it was delicious. It was decent. The next day it was quite a bit better. But it was more important that I wasn’t uncomfortable, and I wasn’t. I made it work. This was a huge win.

Then I went hiking.

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Gradations of light and shadow, eastern meadow.

Longtime readers know about my love affair with nature—with the wildest parts especially. It is at once a source of serenity and energy for me to leave the paved walkways and cross meadows, hills, glens, groves, the untidy places, the unmanicured country. There is no grass, let alone neatly trimmed grass. The spicy fallen leaves are slippery. I get my ankles tangled in the snarls of vines that cover the rolling ground. Chipmunks, groundhogs, and squirrels dart between thistles. Once I even saw a coyote. I always hope I’ll run into him again. But I hike mostly because I love the feeling of being enveloped by something ancient and unspoiled. It’s like getting massaged on the inside. And I always try to see something I haven’t seen before.

A few Thanksgivings ago I found a hidden cemetery, with maybe 30 occupants in all. I always wish them a nice holiday.

Last year I found tiny old wooden shacks labeled with numbers—1937, 1938—and I fancied them past years, relegated silently to the woods of Navesink. I could not bring myself to look through the windows and still cannot. This year I found 1929.

And also this year, beyond the eastern meadow, I followed a deer path until I was surprised by the shadow of a horse. It stood perfectly still, so I ventured closer to investigate. It was a sculpture, perfectly to scale, and made entirely of driftwood blackened with age. Imagine coming across this with no warning.

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The afternoon light gets low pretty early these days. I watched it ride the edge of the trees and wondered if I had enough time to look just a little farther. I’d never been beyond the brook at the western end of the woods, and it was tempting. I decided it was getting too late to chance it. Coming across a coyote at nighttime is somewhat less appealing.

But here’s the thing. Being sick or injured can make a person want to withdraw and not take chances. God knows it’s happened with me, especially recently. After a month of ping-ponging between my food pipe being okay and being uncomfortable, you can believe I’ve hung back from time to time. If I’m not careful, though, that can become a new habit.

Last Thursday I wanted to go farther. I’m so glad I wanted to. It’s a good sign. There are times when I won’t be able to, like this time. But I figure as long as I always want to know what’s beyond the brook, I’m okay.

For dinner that night I ate half an Italian sausage, some caramel applesauce I stirred up on the spot (sliced apples with a little butter, brown sugar, and water), and vanilla pudding I’d made the night before. And it was okay again, and I was grateful.

The crust from that loaf of Italian bread is sitting tight in my freezer, waiting for another batch of stuffing. It’ll happen.

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My neighbor, Mr. Cook, is to me an example of how to live.

That’s his flag above, which he puts out at dawn, and takes in at dusk, every single day of the year.

Mr. Cook tells me he’s lived in his house since the 1950s, when he was our tiny town’s fire chief. In those days, many of the houses along my street were home to firemen. When the bell sounded from the fire house across the street, the men would hear it and run to gear up and go. To this day, when he sees activity there, he slowly heads over to get in on it. And our fearless boys, young enough to be his kids and grandkids, treat him like a returning hero.

Retired for many years now, Mr. Cook keeps active in dozens of ways. Dancing is his favorite pastime. Every spring he drives to a handful of different town halls up and down the shoreline and picks up a copy of their summer events schedule. Then he goes home, sits on his little porch in one of those white plastic stackable chairs you can buy outside the Home Depot, and details where and when all of the senior dances will be held. He never misses one, and let me tell you—as a single, mobile gentleman in his 80s, his dance card gets filled. Each morning he tells me how it went. Music, socializing? Not a big deal. To him, it’s pretty much a numbers game: ‘I danced with eight ladies last night!’ he’ll say. I think ten is his personal best.

Mr. Cook also travels annually to visit the surviving members of his company from his days as a World War II soldier. (That’s not a typo. He still keeps in touch with his comrades—over sixty years later.) He had a bonus a few years back when he went to the southwest for an army reunion and danced with, as he put it, ‘lots of cowgirls.’

He makes pancakes for himself every Sunday morning without fail. (You’re getting a sense of what kind of man this is, right?) I like to bring a piece of whatever it is I bake to him. Later I’ll ask how he liked it. He always has the same response: an eye twinkle and a ‘Keep practicing.’

And Mr. Cook is the only one I know who doesn’t blink when I say my coffee cake contains wild mulberries that I picked myself. I really think he’s one of the last great outdoorsmen, so to him there’s nothing strange about picking fruit off a tree. He grew up in nearby Asbury Park, NJ, a seaside city flanked by Deal Lake on its north and west ends. A natural lake that once flowed from the ocean, its expansive arteries and narrow, shady fingers stretching further west must have thoroughly enchanted adventurous boys in the 1920s and 30s, with no electronics or malls to distract them. He tells me he canoed every inch of that lake.

A fisherman to this day, when he was in his early 80s he regularly trekked out to Sandy Hook, about 1/2 an hour north, to teach kids how to fish. He still goes in September to pick beach plums, which he collects in a plastic grocery bag and presents to a friend who cooks them down into his very favorite kind of jelly.

He also likes to bag his own turkey for Thanksgiving. The rest of us go to Shop-Rite; Mr. Cook goes to Pennsylvania. He bundles up, packs a bunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sits down in the woods, and waits. And waits. I asked why it takes so long to get a turkey, and he said, ‘It’s because they’re smart, and very fast. You move just an inch, and they all fly up into the trees.’ We think of turkeys as being slow—in the head and otherwise—because if we have any association with them at all, it’s of farm turkeys. They’ve had all the brains bred out of them, and to add insult to injury, they can no longer fly, either. But wild birds, now—everything is intact. Sharp vision, sharp minds, and they can fly up to 55 mph.

I asked Mr. Cook if wild turkeys make good eating and his eyes lit up. ‘OH, yes,’ he says. ‘They make the best soup you ever had.’

Well, those are the times when he’s able to catch one. He says his Thanksgiving meal is always a 50/50 toss-up. Many’s the Thanksgiving when I’d call out to him, ‘So what’s for dinner?’ and he’d sigh and smirk and say: ‘Franks and beans.’

Independent, adventurous, happy with the little things in life. That’s him all over.

But my favorite image of Mr. Cook is one I have of him on the Fourth of July, in the evening, a few years ago. Just after dark, Asbury’s fireworks were visible over the trees south of us. I climbed out onto my roof just as they started and caught a glimpse of him on his tiny porch, on one of his white plastic chairs, watching and eating a dish of plain vanilla ice cream from Carvel.

Happy Fourth, everybody.

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